Tuesday, July 17, 2018

There's no better place in the world to make a comeback

Wimbledon Centre Court /
The thrill of victory 

on the most famous rectangle in tennis.

One year ago, Novak Djokovic left Wimbledon injured and uncertain of his future. On Sunday, the Serbian left the All England Club as the 2018 Wimbledon gentlemen's singles champion for the fourth time. As a further reward, he even got to share a dance with this year's ladies' singles champion, Angelique Kerber, at Sunday night's Champions' Dinner.

While the past couple of years have seen some dark, barren times for the 13-time Grand Slam champion, his 6-2, 6-2, 7-6 (3) win over 32-year-old Kevin Anderson of South Africa in this year's Wimbledon final proved without a doubt that Djokovic is back – and, now, he's the newly ranked No. 10 player in the world.

Meanwhile, Anderson's memorable fortnight, which included a five-set victory over No. 1 seed Roger Federer in the quarterfinals that propelled him toward reaching his second Grand Slam final in less than a year, lifted him to No. 5 in the latest ATP rankings.

"Even though today is not the result I was looking for, I think in the next few days, just seeing my new career-high ranking is going to mean a lot to me," said Anderson during the trophy presentation following Sunday's final. "Looking back at some of the matches, especially my quarterfinal and semifinal match, it will really set, in what I've accomplished. I can be happy with that and use it for continued motivation."

At No. 21, Djokovic became the lowest-ranked male to win Wimbledon since Goran Ivanisevic won in 2001 while ranked No. 125.

Novak Djokovic celebrates his Wimbledon 
victory by waving to his family.
While the 12th-seeded Djokovic's victory, which came a day after his epic five-set semifinal win over World No. 1 Rafael Nadal, lifted him back into the Top 10, it's worth asking: just how good was Djokovic during this Wimbledon fortnight? Does this put him in the right frame of mind with the United States Open just a few weeks away? Can Djokovic win any more majors?

Tackling these pressing  questions one at a time, Djokovic remains the best returner in men's tennis, bar none, and it made a big difference against the 6-foot-8 Anderson, who was hobbled by mental and physical fatigue brought on from his six plus-hour marathon semifinal on Friday against John Isner, in which the fifth set alone was stretched to 50 games (26-24 in favor of Anderson) and lasted nearly three hours alone. Understandably, the personable giant, who is one of the nicest and most polite professionals on tour, had little left for the final. Indeed, by winning Wimbledon, it gives Djokovic a big psychological boost heading into the North America hard court season leading up to the United States Open, which begins the final week of August. And yes, if Federer can still win Grand Slams at age 36, there's  no reason that Djokovic can't win a few more, too – he's just 31.

The past couple of years have seen a decline in Djokovic's desire – not to mention turmoil among his coaching team – coupled with a serious injury to his right elbow that required surgery following this year's Australian Open. On Sunday, it was great to see the champion, nicknamed "Nole," back on Centre Court playing in a Grand Slam final, reunited with his longtime coach Marian Vajda who sat perched in the players' box just above Centre Court. Djokovic played solid-if-not-patient tennis throughout much of the two hour and 19 minute match. He won 76 percent (52 of 68) of his first-serve points, hit 20 winners against 13 unforced errors and broke his opponent four times in four tries. Although Anderson finished with 10 service aces and hit 26 winners, he committed 32 unforced errors and was zero-for-seven in break-point conversions. Djokovic outpointed Anderson 100-74.

On match point, with Djokovic serving at 6-3 in the third set tie-break, he forced Anderson into netting a forehand return. The final was over. After meeting Anderson at the net to shake hands and exchange pleasantries, Djokovic lifted his arms in triumph – much to the delight of the cheering crowd. Soon after, the new champion knelt down to nibble a few blades of grass in celebration – giving a literal interpretation to tasting victory.

Three-year-old Stefan Djokovic, secure in the
arms of his mother, Novak Djokovic's wife
Jelena, during the trophy ceremony.
Shortly after the ancient silver gilt cup that is awarded to the winner was solidly in Novak's hands, the BBC's cameras quickly cut to Djokovic's box where the charming sight of his three-year-old son, Stefan, secure in the arms of his mother, Djokovic's wife Jelena, applauded his papa's accomplishment.

"It feels amazing – the first time in my life I have someone screaming 'Daddy! Daddy!'," said Djokovic, beaming a smile during his on-court interview with the BBC's Sue Barker.

"I'm very emotional with him being there, and my wife and while team. I cherish this moment."

Polite and gracious, Djokovic continued: "I would like to congratulate Kevin. I was quite lucky to get through. I'm very grateful to everyone who has been supporting me. The last couple of years haven't been easy, facing for the first time a severe injury. I had many moments of doubt and didn't know if I could come back. But there's no better place in the world to make a comeback. I always dreamed of holding this trophy as a boy. This is a sacred place for tennis. It's very special."

Indeed, as Djokovic showed everyone on Sunday, there's no better place in the world than Centre Court at Wimbledon – the most famous rectangle in tennis – to make a comeback.

Photos: Courtesy of Google Images.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

UNIQLO For the Win – New Apparel, Same Federer

Roger Federer/UNIQLO Global Brand Ambassador

When the eight-time Wimbledon champion and No. 1 seed Roger Federer walked out on Centre Court to christen the start of this year's Wimbledon Championship and begin his title defense on Monday afternoon, he wore a new brand, Tokyo-based UNIQLO - not Nike, his long-time apparel partner. The decades-long Federer-Nike era was over. It was a stunning sight to the start of this year's fortnight.

The 36-year-old Federer's nearly all-white attire – collarless shirt with a two-button front and a red pinstripe accent, shorts, bandana-style headband, socks and warm-up jacket – had the minimal and slim-cut red and white UNIQLO logo. His white shoes, which are custom made, were still Nike and bore the familiar swoosh logo. Federer's new UNIQLO kit bore the design of the Japanese brand's artistic director Christophe Lemaire.

Within minutes after the 20-time Grand Slam winner took Centre Court for his first-round match against 57th-ranked Dusan Lajovic of Serbia, UNIQLO UK tweeted:

"UNIQLO is honoured to welcome Roger Federer as our new Global Brand Ambassador!"

In a statement released by UNIQLO, Tadashi Yanai, UNIQLO's founder and chairman, said, "Mr. Federer is one of the greatest champions in history – my respect for him goes beyond sport.

"Our partnership will be about innovation on and off the court. We share a goal of making positive change in the world, and I hope together we can bring the highest quality of life to the greatest number of people. UNIQLO will help Mr. Federer continue taking tennis to new places while exploring innovations in a number of areas including technology and design with him."

Federer said, "I am deeply committed to tennis and to winning championships. But like UNIQLO, I also have great love for life, culture and humanity. We share a strong passion to have a positive impact on the world around us and look forward to combining our creative endeavors."

Soon after the announcement, Sports Illustrated executive editor and senior writer Jon Wertheim tweeted:

Roger Federer debuts his new Uniqlo kit
at Wimbledon on Monday.
"Uniqlo for the win. #Wimbledon"

Wertheim added, "As we see a global athlete wearing Uniqlo, a reminder: Tokyo will host the 2020 Olympics. $30 million per year, sources tell us. Do they get into performance footwear now?"

According to Darren Rovell of ESPN.com, the deal "is worth more than $300 million guaranteed over 10 years and has an unprecedented clause that says that Federer will still collect the money even if he doesn't play." He can also sell patches on his shirt, which he couldn't do with Nike.

When you take a look at Federer's $300 million UNIQLO deal, consider this: his career on-court earnings over the past two decades are a mere $116.6 million.

Federer's deal with Nike expired on March 1. He continued to wear Nike without a deal during recent grass-court tournaments in Stuttgart and Halle, Germany, last month. He appeared for his Wimbledon pre-tournament press conference on Sunday wearing an open-collar dress shirt and sports jacket. By all appearances, Federer looked like he was dressed up for a dinner out the Wimbledon village with his family and team instead of coming in from the practice courts.

Christopher Clarey, tennis columnist for The New York Times, said in a tweet that "Federer's Nike deal is done but have been told by industry sources that the RF logo will revert to Federer at some stage in the next few years. Am told they do not own the rights to it in perpetuity so it may well rise again."

As it happened, Federer beat Lajovic in the opening round, 6-1, 6-3, 6-4, in a tidy 1 hour and 19 minutes, then returned on Wednesday afternoon to Centre Court and beat 94th-ranked Lukas Lacko of Slovakia in straight sets, 6-4, 6-4, 6-1. He is undefeated wearing UNIQLO and has now won 26 consecutive sets at Wimbledon. Although it might take a few matches to get used to seeing Federer in UNIQLO instead of Nike, I think the change is a good one for the Swiss maestro. He's playing inspired, efficient tennis and – still – is the player to beat at Wimbledon this year.

"We're going to have to get adjusted to not seeing the Nike swoosh," said Hall of Famer Jim Courier, who analyzed Federer's opening-day match for Tennis Channel. "It's like Superman without the 'S'. We'll see if it has any impact on him. I doubt it."

While Federer's fashion choices will be debated by the media and his legion of worldwide fans, one thing's certain: the new UNIQLO grand brand ambassador still looks fabulous in white. His new adornments highlight his graceful movement and masterful strokes – and, as Federer has shown so far, he still knows how to play superb tennis.

Photos: Courtesy of Uniqlo Twitter feed and Google images.

Friday, June 22, 2018

World Cup: Tennis stars in touch with the beautiful game

The 21st World Cup of football – the international variety not the American kind – is one of the biggest quadrennial sporting events in the entire world. It began last week in Russia and it's set to distract sports fans across Planet Earth through Sunday, July 15, which happens to be the same day as the gentlemen's singles final at Wimbledon.

Speaking of tennis, it's not a surprise that many of the world's best tennis professionals are showing an avid interest  – an emotional involvement, if you will – in the World Cup tournament. After all, it's probably the pipe dream of many players that if they weren't carving out a nice career on tennis courts while globe trekking around the world, they would be sporting their skills playing the "beautiful game" on grassy pitches and in front of thousands of die-hard football fans.

When it comes to the World Cup, I've learned, it's okay for players to become emotionally involved and to have a sense of fighting spirit – not only for their team, but for everyone in the entire country.

Last Sunday, after he won the MercedesCup tournament in Stuttgart, Germany, for his 98th career title, Roger Federer tweeted a photo of himself driving home to Basel, Switzerland via the German autobahn. His tweet read: "Made it back home on time to watch Switzerland vs. Brazil. Great effort team Switzerland, good luck Brazil for the rest of the way."

Roger Federer/Driving on the German autobahn.

Elena Vesnina of Russia, ranked No. 1 in the world in doubles with her partner Ekaterina Makarova, was in attendance for the World Cup opener between host Russia and Saudi Arabia in Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium on June 14. She produced live content for the WTA's Instagram feed.

Speaking of which, an Instagram video posted by the WTA has drawn a lot of position attention. The WTA tweeted: "The #FIFAWorldCup is here! #WTA stars will be watching ... Will you?"

The one-minute video shows a variety of WTA stars, including Vesnina, Simona Halep of Romania, Caroline Garcia of France, Karolina Pliskova and Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic, Daria Kasatkina of Russia, Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark, Anastasija Sevastova and Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia, Johanna Konta of Great Britain, Madison Keys of the United States, and Julia Goerges of Germany. Each is shown trying their skills at dribbling and passing a football. Clearly, their talent has no limits, does it?

Meanwhile, Germany's Andrea Petkovic tweeted a list of things that she likes about the World Cup: "1. No more awkward silences in elevators with strangers. 2. Always something to watch on TV. 3. Iceland and their chiseled chins. 4. Hair fashion."

Last weekend, Kristina Mladenovic of France tweeted, "ALLEZ LES BLEUS" in support of her country's entry in the World Cup. France beat Australia in its opener.

Among the men, Rafael Nadal, long a fan of Real Madrid in the Spanish League, is leading the cheers for Spain – of course – and Novak Djokovic has a vested interest in Serbia. Also, Tunisia's Malek Jaziri, a long-time football fan, is cheering for his home country's team from afar while competing in Halle, Germany this week at the Gerry Weber Open.

According to David Law of BBC5 Live and co-host of "The Tennis Podcast," of all of the Fever-Tree Championships player lounge World Cup player goal celebrations so far, those of Novak Djokovic and his team "are the most ecstatic by far. Basically, he did a lap of the entire room."

Djokovic has built up a good relationship with several of the Serbia World Cup team and often picks their brains about different ways to improve his training regime. In a press conference on Sunday before the start of the Fever-Tree Championships at Queen's Club in London, Djokovic, who is an avid fan of the Serbian national team that won its opener over Costa Rica, insists he would happily miss a first appearance for Serbia in the World Cup final if it means he is back in the Wimbledon men's title match.

Fortunately, it appears the World Cup final match has a later kick off time than the start for the Wimbledon men's singles final, but only by a couple of hours. Otherwise ...

"Really? I didn't know that. Wow," said Djokovic. "Ive been fortunate to win Wimbledon three times and play well there. If that happens I would obviously be very happy to miss the World Cup final."

Cover photo: Courtesy of TennisTV Twitter feed.
Roger Federer photo: Courtesy of Roger Federer Twitter feed.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Admiring brilliance: Nadal wins his 11th French Open title

Rafael Nadal clutches 
the Coupe des Mousquetaires
after winning his 11th French Open title.

"We admire brilliance but will we get competition?" NBC's outstanding tennis commentator Ted Robinson asked as he readied to call Rafael Nadal's first match of the 2018 French Open against Simone Bolelli of Italy at Stade Roland Garros two weeks ago. Fast forward to the end of the Paris fortnight Sunday and the answer is yes.

Nadal captured his 11th French Open crown by defeating 24-year-old Austrian star Dominic Thiem, the only man to defeat him on clay during the past two years, 6-4, 6-3, 6-2, on Court Philippe Chatrier. In what seemed at times to resemble a blowout but was actually decided by just a few service breaks, Thiem did not play bad. Nadal just played better.

"I'm very happy right now," said Nadal during an on-court interview with French TV after his victory while awaiting the start of the trophy presentation. Nadal addressed the crowd in both French and English.

The victory solidified the King of Clay's No. 1 world ranking and it was Nadal's first major title victory with Carlos Moya as his primary coach after long being coached by his uncle Toni Nadal.

The last time that Nadal and Thiem met, last month in the ATP Masters 1000 Mutua Madrid Open, Thiem ended Nadal's 21-match and 50-set winning streaks on clay. Thus, everyone attending Sunday's French Open men's singles final in person as well as those watching on TV around the world all asked the same question: Can Thiem do it again and beat Nadal in the final at Roland Garros? As it happened, the answer was no.

Nadal, 32, who was trying to become the first player – man or woman – to win 11 titles at three different tournaments, including his 11th Couple des Mousquetaires at Roland Garros, was solid in winning 82 percent of his first-serve points. Also, he controlled the net, where he won 16 of 18 opportunities, and broke Thiem five times in 17 chances. Nadal hit 26 winners to offset his 24 unforced errors.

Thiem countered with seven service aces but also committed five double faults. Although he won 67 percent of his first-serve points, he had trouble winning points on his second serve and converted just 34 percent of his chances. Thiem broke Nadal just once in three tries. He hit 34 winners but committed 42 unforced errors. Nadal outpointed Thiem 105-79.

Throughout their two hour and 42 minute match, Nadal was cool under pressure. Playing under humid conditions, the final featured many long, grueling rallies between both Nadal and Thiem. The first seven games lasted 45 minutes – alone – and set a tone for the remainder of the afternoon.

Nadal got off to a fast start by winning the first six points of the match and broke for a quick 2-0 lead. The Spaniard hit many memorable topspin forehand winners, a tribute to his drive and determination. When Thiem was broken at love in the 10th game, it gave Nadal the first set 6-4.

Early on, BBC5 Live's David Law, co-host of The Tennis Podcast, tweeted about Thiem, "Has the basic artillery to live with Nadal. Whether that's sustainable, another matter. Might rattle Rafa, though."

Thiem knew he had to be perfect to beat Nadal for the first time in a best-of-5 set match – and after the first set, he faced the unenviable task of having to win three of the remaining four sets. Plus, in the back of his mind, he must have been aware of this stat: Nadal is 95-0 when he wins the first set in a best-of-5 set match on clay. Make that 96-0 now.

The second set began similar to the first as Nadal jumped out to a 3-0 lead. He exhibited an ability to absorb everything Thiem hit at him and not get down anytime he lost a point. Nadal would lose 79 points during the match, still knowing he would come out ahead at the end. Ahead 4-2, it prompted NBC's outspoken analyst and Hall of Famer John McEnroe to comment about Thiem for his television audience watching back in the U.S., "He's got to find a gear he's never used in order to beat Nadal. ... I just don't think he has it in him." Although Thiem fought valiantly at times, he couldn't regain the break that he surrendered to Nadal early in the set and the Spaniard won the second set 6-3.

Nadal wasted little time in breaking Thiem early to go ahead 2-1 at the start of the third set. It seemed no matter how well Thiem played, Nadal was ridiculously just a little better. The effort Nadal displayed throughout the match – as well as the entire tournament – was unbelievable. Not even a cramped left hand, which Nadal sustained after holding for 3-1, could detour him. After all, he's still a pretty lethal player with just nine functioning fingers.

As Nadal served for the match, ahead 5-2, Thiem fought off four match points before the inevitable happened. On his fifth championship point, Nadal won the game and the set 6-2 – and clinched the match for his 17th Grand Slam championship title, which moved him to within three of Roger Federer's career-leading 20 majors.

Nadal lifted his arms high in the air and raised his head toward the heavens in celebration. La Undécima was all his to savor. Then, he and Thiem arrived at the net together from opposite directions and shared a long embrace before walking off the terre battue.

Give props to Thiem for fighting hard and playing well – even in defeat. He was trying to become the first Austrian since Thomas Muster in 1995 to win the French Open. During an on-court interview, Thiem told McEnroe, "I fought for every ball, but Rafa was just too good. I have to accept it. To play here is one of the toughest challenges in all sports.

"Even when Rafa isn't 100 percent," said Thiem referring to Nadal's hand cramp late in the match, "he's still pretty amazing."

After receiving the Coupe des Mousquetaires trophy from 1968 French Open champion Ken Rosewall, Nadal lifted it three times high above his head, then accepted the thunderous applause in a very prolonged ovation from the French crowd. It brought teams to Nadal's eyes followed a few moments later by a big smile. He clutched the trophy in both arms close to his chest as the Spanish national anthem, "Marcha Real" was played.

After the trophy presentation, Nadal was asked on court by McEnroe to describe the feeling of winning his 11th French Open title. "It's impossible to describe the feeling. This is the tournament I love to win.

"I've received all this love and appreciation from the crowd and I thank everyone. The emotions are always high when you win something you think is impossible."

By winning, Nadal matched Margaret Court's record of claiming 11 singles titles at the same Grand Slam. It also improved his Roland Garros win-loss record to an astonishing 86-2, and he's now won 111 best-of-5 sets clay-court matches and lost only two during his remarkable career.

Nadal also became one of just four players to claim three or more major championships after turning 30, joining Federer, Rosewall and Rod Laver.

En route to his 11th Roland Garros title, Nadal dropped just one set the entire fortnight, against Diego Schwartzman in the first set of their quarterfinal match that started on Wednesday. Nadal finished by winning nine consecutive sets, which included three in his quarterfinal win over Schwartzman, three in his semifinal win over Juan Martín del Potro, and three against Thiem in the final. Nadal improved his win-loss record to 30-2 this season, and has won his last 12 matches – all on clay.

Afterward, Nadal told the media gathered for his final press conference that he believes there is room for him to improve. He said, "You can always improve something, and I think that everyone can improve. There is no limit. You never know where is the limit. If you don't have the will to improve, you don't understand the sport, because the sport is always about improving. That's the meaning of sport. It's playing with the dream of doing something better than what you're doing before. ... When you're not working with passion of doing something better, I think that sports will lose its sense."

Now, it's on to the grass-court season for Nadal with his No. 1 ranking secured for now and the start of the Wimbledon fortnight just three weeks away.

Cover photo: Courtesy of Associated Press.
Highlight video: Courtesy of YouTube.com.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The 2018 French Open: Creating beautiful poster art through capturing the simple bounce of a tennis ball

Roland Garros and modern art have enjoyed a long, steady and tasteful relationship. It's a very French thing. In a sport where a player's instinct and spontaneous movement creates beautiful art out of work during every rally – especially on a terre battue canvas – the annual French Open poster is seen as a colorful and fascinating part of the Roland Garros experience. 

Each year since 1980, the grounds at Roland Garros in the 16th arrondissement of Paris have displayed bright and imaginative posters that truly embody the spirit and excitement of the French Open. After all, if tennis is seen as art – and why not? – then, its athletes are truly artists who have traded paint brushes for tennis rackets.

In an earlier era, Les Quatre Mousquetaires (Jacques Brugnon, Jean Borotra, Henri Cochet and René Lacoste) were prestigious French tennis players who dominated the sport in the second half of the 1920s and early '30s and were known for their dashing grace and athleticism. They became national icons in France – their success in winning the 1927 Davis Cup against the United States helped lead to the building of the Roland Garros venue at Porte d'Auteuil – and the French Open men's championship trophy was named the Coupe des Mousquetaires in honor of the quartet. 

Today, one need only think of World No. 1 Rafael Nadal, the undisputed king of clay, whose Picasso-like artistry as he glides across Court Philippe Chatrier – brushing his racquet against a tennis ball – is truly a bold and dynamic thing to admire. He's won 10 French Open singles titles, most of any athlete – male or female – which has endeared him to the French and tennis fans worldwide.

The quintessential Björn Borg's hair
as captured by Eduardo Arroyo in 1981.

Among the artists who have created French Open poster art since its inception are: Eduardo Arroyo, whose 1981 Pop Art image of Björn Borg's hair captured a quintessential quality of 1980s tennis; Joan Miró, one the most prominent influences on the development of both Surrealism and 20th-century art, who created the 1991 poster; documentary filmmaker and painter Jean-Michel Meurice, whose 1996 poster was inspired by the red clay and white lines of the Roland Garros courts; jazz drummer and composer Daniel Humair, who conveyed a musical rhythm to capture the pulse of the French Open in his 2004 poster; and Du Zhenjun, who in 2015 became the first Chinese artist selected to design a French Open poster. His training in traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy is reflected in his work.

Jazz drummer and composer Daniel Humair
conveyed a musical rhythm to capture
the pulse of the French Open in 2004.

For this year's French Open, Paris-born Fabienne Verdier was commissioned to create the poster for the 2018 tournament, which begins Sunday. Born in 1962, Verdier is the fourth woman selected to design the official Roland Garros poster, following in the footsteps of Jane Hammond (2003), Kate Shepherd (2007) and Nalini Malani (2010). She's also the first French artist, too. 

"For me, Roland Garros evokes those first warm days that herald the arrival of summer in Paris, when the intense light of May and June makes the ochre day sparkle," said Verdier, in an interview recently posted on French Open website rolandgarros.com. "As the sun races across the sky, the courts turn from amber to tobacco, from saffron to sepia, from ochre to red, from sienna to brown. During every rally, the balls collect this multicolored dust and, like comets, leave enchanting lines of energy in their wake."

In creating the 2018 French Open poster, Verdier chose to focus on the simple bounce of a tennis ball. In a split-second moment, she perfectly captures "that moment of truth in which the ball, after hitting the clay, sets off on one of many possible trajectories. The ball's movement gives off incredible energy."

Verdier describes her abstract impression this way: "I tried to portray the lightning speed of the player's movements. The energy that they transmit to the ball in a movement full of spontaneity, vitality, power, precision and slide. And I imagined one of those unexpected bounces that take the opponent by surprise and force them, in the following rally, to surpass themselves once again in order to get one step closer to victory in Paris."

To view the entire collection of French Open art posters: www.rolandgarros.com
Fabienne Verdier video courtesy of YouTube.com
French Open poster art courtesy of www.rolandgarros.com

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Encore: Who lives, who dies, who gets to tell your story?

Creative genius / Lin-Manuel Miranda
It's been said that works of art have long informed how people understand the past, and Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton, which I saw for the second time in the past year last weekend in New York City, is no exception.

As the creative genius of the Broadway smash-hit Hamilton, Miranda changed the way that people considered one of the Founding Fathers and the era he lived in. In doing so, it put Miranda in lofty territory, alongside how Shakespeare transformed Richard III, and how the author Leon Uris romanticized the founding of Israel in his novel Exodus.

In revisiting an essay I wrote about Miranda in March 2016, here's some things worth noting:

In creating Hamilton, Miranda relied on the core elements of hip-hop and R & B-inspired music as well as jazz, pop and Tin Pan Alley – plus a racially-diverse cast – to make history as relatable as possible. Soon after its 2015 debut, Hamilton became a certifiable Broadway box office hit – it remains one of the toughest, most-sought after tickets on Broadway – and the musical became centered around a story arc that relates Hamilton's life story, from his orphaned upbringing in the West Indies to his death in a duel at the hands of Aaron Burr.

"This is a story about America then, told by America now," Miranda, a native New Yorker of Puerto Rican heritage, once told The Atlantic, "and we want to eliminate any distance between a contemporary audience and this story."

In a September 29, 2015 essay for The Atlantic, Edward Delman wrote, "Hamilton, then, has the potential to strongly influence the way Americans think about the early republic. For one thing ... it understands Thomas Jefferson to be a deeply flawed individual. It presents an American history in which women and people of color share the spotlight with the founding fathers. The primarily black and Hispanic cast reminds audiences that American history is not just the history of white people, and frequent allusions to slavery serve as constant reminders that just as the revolutionaries were fighting for their freedom, slaves were held in bondage.

"Perhaps, the most significant lesson the show might teach audiences, and one that has particular relevance today, is the outsized role immigrants have played in the nation's history. Alexander Hamilton was an immigrant – a fact that Miranda repeatedly emphasizes throughout the show – and the musical also prominently features the Marquis de Lafayette, a French nobleman who played a crucial role during the revolutionary war."

It's pretty amazing to think back to the fascinating process which Miranda translated the history of the unlikely rise and untimely fall of the first U.S. Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton, onto the stage. He drew upon the Ron Chernow biography of Hamilton for focus and inspiration. Then, flash back to May 12, 2009, when Miranda first performed "The Hamilton Mixtape" before an audience that included President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House Evening of Poetry, Music and the Spoken Word, accompanied by pianist Alex Lacamoire.

In looking back at a February 2015 feature about Hamilton, Rebecca Meade of The New Yorker wrote: "It does not seem accidental that Hamilton was created during the tenure of the first African-American President. The musical presents the birth of the nation in an unfamiliar but necessary light: not solely as the world of élite white men but as the foundational story of all Americans. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington are all played by African-Americans. Miranda also gives prominent roles to women, including Hamilton's wife Eliza Schuyler, and sister-in-law Angelica Schuyler. When they are joined by a third sister, their zigzagging harmonies sound rather like those of Destiny's Child.

"Miranda portrays the Founding Fathers not as exalted statesmen but as orphaned sons, reckless revolutionaries, and sometimes petty rivals, living at a moment of extreme volatility, opportunity, and risk. The achievements and the dangers of America's current moment – under the Presidency of a fatherless son of an immigrant, born in the country's island margins – are never far from view."

The Grammy Award-winning original cast recording, produced by The Roots' Questlove and Black Thought – has been a welcome companion of mine on my car stereo for several years – and I never really tire of its songs.

"I don't know how many really good ideas you get in a lifetime," Miranda once told The Hollywood Reporter, "but the idea of telling Hamilton as a hip-hop story was definitely one because you get to do everything: love and death and a war and duels and revenge and affairs and sex scandals."

One thing remains certain: Thanks to Miranda's genius, the Tony Award-winning Hamilton continues to have a positive influence in altering our perception of American history, and the role in which artists are helping shape historical narrative. And, Miranda knows that he can't stop being who he is just because more people are looking at him.

Photo credits: Lin-Manuel Miranda's Twitter feed and Google Images. Video/audio credit: YouTube.com.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

RBG: Hero. Icon. Dissenter.

At the age of 85, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a legal legend, a feminist hero, a notorious dissenter. She's developed a breathtaking legal legacy while becoming – unexpectedly – a pop culture icon. We know her accomplishments, but we've haven't heard her story. Until now.

"I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks."

With last week's release of the empowering RBG, a revelatory documentary biography that explores the esteemed Justice Ginsburg's truly remarkable life and career, from directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen and co-produced by Storyville Films and CNN Films, we are reminded of her tireless fight for women and equality – of how law can be used for social change.

"People ask me: 'When will there be enough women on the court?' And my answer is 'When there are nine.'"

In RBG, we see up close how Justice Ginsburg balances her personal and professional life. We learn of her energy, her focus, her drive – even her sense of humor. Her confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee – she was nominated by President Bill Clinton – is an anchor and central narrative thread for the 97-minute film in which we see glimpses of both her personal and professional sides.

"I became a lawyer when women were not wanted by the legal profession."

Justice Ginsburg's professional energy is shown time and again throughout the film, of which I saw a sneak preview in a northwest Washington, D.C., theater five days before its release date in selected cities. Inside the Supreme Court Building, we see Justice Ginsburg's personal office decorated in colorful modern art. There are lots of family photographs of her and her late husband, Marty – the love of her life – as well as of her children and of her grandchildren. We see her many judicial robes and her collection of "dissent" collars. It is a wide-ranging space. We also learn about the collegiality Justice Ginsburg shares among the other eight Supreme Court Justices, regardless of their liberal or conservative leanings. For all of their differences, she was actually best of friends with the late conservative Justice Antonin Scalia.

"Men and women are persons of equal dignity and they should count equally. The point is that the discriminatory line almost inevitably hurts women."

In RBG, we learn about Justice Ginsburg's intellectual curiosity. Born in the 1930s, she was the first in her family to go to college, and was one of nine women among a Harvard Law School class of more than 500. We understand the important place she holds in judicial history in fighting for gender equality. As a young litigator, she took six gender discrimination cases to the Supreme Court – and won five of them.

"I did see myself as kind of a kindergarten teacher in these days because the judges didn't think sex discrimination existed."

Then, on August 10, 1993, Ruth Bader Ginsburg became the second female to sit on the nation's highest court. Talk about a legacy! She is a center of power on and off the court. Outside of the Supreme Court, we witness Justice Ginsburg's love of opera and the arts – and talking to groups of young school students – as something that rejuvenates her. We also see up close her regular gym workouts, doing planks and push-ups, that show how she's proud of keeping herself in shape to do the job of Supreme Court Justice.

One critic labeled RBG a love story, a history lesson, a comedy, a profile in courage. The Washington Post wrote: "She's created a whole new way for the public to look at a Supreme Court Justice."

"I surely wouldn't be in this room today without the determined efforts of men and women who kept dreams alive."

RBG is an excellent, inspiring and important film that – hopefully – will inspire generations of women to pursue law and justice. It's also an important historical document. We are reminded of Justice Ginsburg's commitment to creating a more equitable society for all people.

After all, you can't spell "truth" without Ruth.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Telling a story through the Presidents who shaped history

Barack Obama
Recently, while entertaining out of state friends, we happened one evening to visit the nation's only complete collection of presidential portraits outside of the White House at the Smithsonian Institute's National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. The gallery of Presidential Portraits is a timeless exhibition that lies at the heart of the National Portrait Gallery's core mission: telling the American story through the individuals who shaped it.

From George Washington to Barack Obama, presidential portraits have always attracted our interest. Once upon a time – before newspapers, magazines and television – a painted portrait or a sculpted image was the only means that most of us knew of our Presidents. And, as I've learned, throughout much of the 19th century, there was a lively debate over which portrait of George Washington most accurately conveyed his proper image.

Inside the gallery of Presidential Portraits, there are a variety of presidential likenesses, including oil on canvas, marble head busts, engravings – and, there's the Chuck Close portrait of Bill Clinton that is truly amazing and has to be seen. As I took note while walking through the gallery and viewing the presidential portraiture in order of their presidency, from Washington to Obama, I couldn't help but notice that some portraits were more sophisticated and interesting than others. Let's face it – I think Teddy Roosevelt is just a bit more striking a figure than Millard Fillmore. Same goes for JFK compared to Calvin Coolidge. No offense, some presidents are just more interesting than others.

Bill Clinton
As I drew closer to the newest presidential portrait – of Barack Obama – I noticed an orderly queue line and soon I joined it so that I could take a few candid photographs. The portrait of the 44th President by artist Kehinde Wiley was unveiled on February 12 at the National Portrait Gallery and it's become the center of attention – along with the new portrait of former first lady Michelle Obama – inside the entire National Portrait Gallery.

"Historically, portraiture has always been about saying yes to things that we want to celebrate, but I think also the commissioned portrait has often times been about a society saying, 'Who are the people we collectively want to honor?' and particularly with the presidential portrait, this is the highest aspect of that tradition," said Wiley, during a recent interview with Time. "It's been – I can't tell you – an extraordinary honor to be able to participate in that."

The portrait of Obama makes quite a statement. It's anything but drab. The former president is shown wearing a black suit with an open-collared shirt. He's sitting on a wooden chair. And, he's surrounded by flowers and green foliage. The flowers, I learned, include: blue lilies, from his father's home in Kenya; jasmine from Obama's home state of Hawaii; and chrysanthemums, the official flower of Chicago, the former president's hometown.

John F. Kennedy
At the unveiling of his portrait, Obama said, "What I was always struck by whenever I saw (Wiley's) portraits was the degree to which they challenged our conventional views of power and privilege."

Wiley stated, "The ability to be the first African-American painter to paint the first African-American president of the United States is absolutely overwhelming. It doesn't get any better than that."

After seeing the Obama portrait, Brian T. Allen wrote in The National Review, "Obama looks directly at us, as if he reads our minds and challenges our assumptions. It's jarring but effective. He's formal and familiar, both tense and loose. He leans toward the viewer. It's not a position comfortably sustained. It's not repose. It suggests imminent action. For Obama, this probably means he's about to tell us, 'That's not who we are,' instructing us to question some near-universally held sentiment. Wiley builds the figure with straight lines and diagonals. His suit is dark. Aside from his wedding ring, he's unornamented. Obama's open collar softens the effect. It's his trademark look but seems like a uniform. He's a role model, so it works."

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

2018 Fed Cup final will match Team USA, Czech Republic

Team USA  / Celebrating its victory over France.
(L-R) Madison Keys, Sloane Stephens,
CoCo Vandeweghe, Bethanie Mattek-Sands,
captain Kathy Rinaldi.

It seems only fitting that the two most successful – and dominant – teams in the history of the Fed Cup competition, the United States and the Czech Republic, will decide this year's championship later this year.

The Czech Republic, which has won five the past seven Fed Cup titles, will host defending champion United States on November 10-11, likely in Prague. The Americans have captured 18 championships – most in Fed Cup history – and are looking to add to their impressive trophy collection. (The Fed Cup is the women's equivalent to the men's Davis Cup.)

Over the weekend, the United States advanced to its second consecutive Fed Cup final with a 3-2 victory over France in Aix-en-Provence by winning three of four singles rubbers on the red clay inside Arena du Pays d'Aix. World No. 9 Sloane Stephens, who went 2-0 against the French, was solid in her 6-2, 6-0 win over No. 20 Kiki Mladenovic on Sunday. It put the Americans ahead 2-1, needing just one rubber to advance. Then, No. 13 Madison Keys substituted for No. 16 CoCo Vandeweghe and clinched the tie for Team USA with a 7-6 (4), 6-4 win over No. 122 Pauline Parmentier.

"I think all the credit goes to the players," said U.S. team captain Kathy Rinaldi, who took over Team USA in 2017 and is undefeated in five Fed Cup ties. "They played some great tennis. We had some great matches and I think that really stands out."

After her tie-clinching win, Keys said that she was "really happy to get the win. Obviously, Sloane playing some great matches and getting that final win is really, really special."

Team USA has reached back-to-back Fed Cup finals for the first time since finishing runner-up in 2009-10 and last won consecutive Fed Cup titles in 1999-2000.

Meanwhile, the 10-time Fed Cup champion Czech Republic moved into the final round for the sixth time in the last eight years with an impressive 4-1 road victory over Germany in Stuttgart. "It was a very tough tie," Czech Republic team captain Petr Pala said after his team's triumph. "It was an outstanding performance from each of the (singles) winners. ... The tennis was unbelievable."

Pala's team is anchored soundly by World No. 10 Petra Kvitova and No. 6 Karolina Pliskova at singles. Against Germany, Kvitova beat both No. 11 Julia Goerges and No. 12 Angelique Kerber without dropping a set for her 29th and 30th Fed Cup rubber wins. Pliskova is 13-4 in her Fed Cup singles career. The Czech Republic doubles team with be very formidable with Barbora Strycova and Katerina Siniakova paired together. Both are ranked in the Top 20 in the world.

"They've shown the last five years they are the best," German team captain Jens Gerlach said of the Czech Republic team after Sunday's tie.

During his weekly The Tennis Podcast, co-host David Law of BBC5 Live gave props to Kvitova. "Petra Kvitova was in just the most devastating form," he said. "She absolutely thrashed Julia Goerges and Angelique Kerber in Stuttgart. I think it will be a very interesting final at the end of the year."

Like the Czech Republic, Team USA has an abundance of talent to draw upon. "I've always said that's the toughest part about being a captain is looking at the depth and looking at all of the players," said Rinaldi. "Hopefully, everybody is available and we're looking forward to it." Whether the Williams sisters – No. 8 Venus and former No. 1 Serena – will be a part of Team USA for the Fed Cup final remains to be decided. While either would be a welcome addition to an already elite lineup, the current quartet of players that beat France in the semifinals – Stephens, Keys, Vandeweghe and former No. 1 doubles player Bethanie Mattek-Sands – are all great competitors who want to win.

While there's a lot of time between now and the November final to finalize her team, Rinaldi looks forward to the challenge of facing the Czech Republic. The U.S. owns a 10-2 career win-loss record against the Czech Republic in all Fed Cup meetings. "We know going into the final is going to be tough," she said. "Czech Republic has tremendous depth as well. They have had a lot of success, so it should be very interesting."

Cover photo: U.S. Fed Cup team by Ashley Marshall/USTA.
A version of this blog post first appeared in Tennis TourTalk (www.tennis-tourtalk.com).

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

On film: Borg vs. McEnroe, tightly strung rivalry

For 1 hour and 37 minutes on a recent Sunday morning, I felt like I had gone back in time to the summer of 1980 and Sweden's Björn Borg was the top tennis player in the world, in pursuit of a record-breaking fifth Wimbledon gentlemen's singles championship. 

From 1974 to 1981, Borg dominated tennis, both on and off the court. He became the first male player in the Open Era to win 11 Grand Slam singles titles. He possessed a powerful forehand, perfected the two-fisted backhand, and was rigorously disciplined to a fault. On the other side of the net from the 24-year-old Borg was none other than John McEnroe, three years Borg's junior: young, American, talented, abrasive. When you think of Borg vs. McEnroe, you think of tennis, former rivals, best enemies. They were the antithesis of each other.

During a screening at the Cinema Club in Washington, D.C. on March 25, I watched Borg vs. McEnroe, which premiered in limited release in the U.S. last Friday. (It played last fall on the film festival circuit in Europe.) It is directed by Danish filmmaker Janus Metz with the screenplay provided by Swedish writer and director Ronnie Sandahl. Sverrir Gudnason is a dead ringer for Borg while Shia LaBeouf portrays McEnroe.

Borg vs. McEnroe focuses on Borg's rise to prominence, starting from his youth through the 1980 Wimbledon Championships. We learn how Borg's coach, Lennart Bergelin (played brilliantly by Stellan Skarsgård), helps him to channel his competitive – obsessive – behavior off the court so that he can focus on his impulsive game on the court. Meanwhile, we also learn of McEnroe's complete obsession with Borg prior to their big Centre Court championship match.

"Essentially, the movie implies that, despite appearances to the contrary, Borg and McEnroe were inwardly very similar – and different mainly in their behavior. What the drama suggests is that the pressure to maintain appearances, to keep his furies under control and channeled, exacted a very high emotional price on Borg," writes critic Richard Brody in The New Yorker.

"I'm just like everybody else ... I'm not a machine," says Borg, during a testy exchange with a reporter on the eve of his showdown with McEnroe.

Overall, I found Borg vs. McEnroe enjoyable. The fourth set, 34-point tie-break, during which McEnroe saved five match points, takes up nearly the final third of the film. It is at times very riveting and played to its full dramatic effect. The points are fast and so are the edits. While the film focuses on the "Fire and Ice" rivalry between the two future Hall of Fame players, I feel I learned a lot more about the complexity of Borg's character – think tightly strung perfectionist – than I did of McEnroe. However, seeing McEnroe's bad on-court behavior recreated – yelling at both the chair umpire and at pigeons, too – brought back memories for which he's forever remembered. "You cannot be serious!"

Borg vs. McEnroe is presented in both English and Swedish with subtitles. I highly recommend this film.